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Dieting and Training for Competition

Q: I’m a 27-year-old natural bodybuilder from Australia, and I’m currently preparing for the state titles here, where I’m hoping to take the open tall division. My prep is going well, and I should come in bigger and leaner than last year. My goal is to win a state title, then a national title, then the INBA Natural Olympia one day like you. I bought and really enjoyed your book and will also purchase your DVDs. I’m especially interested in your theories regarding each competition one year to the next and why you looked the way you did. I have a few questions:

1) Did you find that you lost much strength when dieting for a competition? Did you train with higher reps in the last few weeks to avoid injury?

2) What plan worked best for you in the last week in regard to carb, sodium and water manipulation?

A: My plan when I was dieting for a competition was to lose fat slowly so that I could retain as much muscle mass and strength as possible. I did not change my training strategy and begin training lighter. I still pushed myself to train as heavy as I could while I was dieting so I could maintain muscle.

Many bodybuilders believe that by training with less weight, they’ll get leaner faster. Nothing could be further from the truth. If you begin training with much less resistance than you’re used to, your muscles will respond by losing size. It’s only common sense that if you’re stressing the muscles less, they’ll adapt to that training load.

It’s inevitable that you’ll get a little weaker when you reduce your calories and carbohydrates prior to a contest. You can avoid a sudden drop in strength, however, by slowly reducing calories when you begin dieting. Don’t drop your calories too low; eat just the right number of calories so you can maintain your muscle while slowly reducing your bodyfat.

I recommend that bodybuilders write down everything they’re eating in the off-season, before they begin dieting. When you know exactly how many calories, protein, carbs and fats you’re taking in, you will be able to design a game plan for what to eat when you begin dieting. Don’t go from eating 4,000 calories to 2,000 calories in one day; that will be too great a shock for your body. Instead, slowly reduce the amount of food you take in so you have enough nutrients to feed and maintain the muscles while slowly reducing the stored fat.

When I was preparing for a contest, I found that I needed to eat approximately 3,000 calories in order to lose fat. If I ate more than that—even if I was used to eating 5,000 calories in the off-season—my body wouldn’t get rid of the fat. Everyone is different, so you need to figure out how many calories, protein, carbs and fats you can eat to still retain your muscle mass and lose the bodyfat. By writing everything down in the off-season, you’ll find it easier to figure out what you need to eat to reach your goal.

It’s also important that you structure your meals so you’re eating carbohydrates before your workout. The carbs are necessary for energy. So even if you’re reducing your carbohydrates with your precontest diet, you should plan on eating a meal with carbs before you train. That will give you the energy you need to use the heaviest weights possible, even while reducing your calories and carbs.

After your training session you can eat fewer carbs the rest of the day because you won’t need them. Eating a lower-carb diet later in the day will help to starve your fat cells while still maintaining your muscle. Eat the carbs when you need them—before your workout—and stay away from them when you don’t need them if you’re trying to lose fat.

You can also incorporate some different training methods when you’re getting ready to compete. Because your strength will be down a little, you can use training methods like supersets and drop sets to increase the intensity of the workout without training heavier. I recommend that you still use one or two basic movements for the standard six to 10 reps at the beginning of the workout and then finish off training that muscle with isolation movements performed in a superset or drop-set fashion.

Regarding the last week of contest prep, I tried not to do anything crazy and risk losing all the conditioning that I’d worked so hard to obtain. My goal was to be ripped and ready one week out from the contest. From that point, all I needed to do was get rid of any subcutaneous water that my body might be holding. My precontest diet was normally pretty low in sodium, so I wasn’t retaining a lot of water during that last week.

Just to be safe, I would cut out any foods that contained a lot of sodium—egg whites and some protein powders—about three days before the contest. I’d continue drinking a lot of water each day until Friday, when I’d cut back to only three-fourths to one gallon of water. That was a big drop from my normal precontest intake of at least two gallons of water each day. If everything worked out right, I’d be even tighter and harder on the day of the contest.

I think it’s a mistake to attempt drastic measures in the last week before a contest. Carb depleting followed by carb loading never worked for me. I usually ended up either flat from carb depleting or holding water from the carbing-up process. Cutting out water too far out from the contest also tends to flatten me out. As I said, the ideal situation is to be contest ready one week before the show and then just make some very minor changes in the days leading up to the contest.

Editor’s note: John Hansen has won the Mr. Natural Olympia and is a two-time Natural Mr. Universe winner. Check out his Web site at, or send questions or comments to [email protected] or at P.O. Box 3003, Darien, IL 60561. Look for John’s DVD, “Natural Bodybuilding Seminar and Competitions,” along with his book, Natural Bodybuilding, and his training DVD, “Real Muscle,” at his Web site or at Home Gym Warehouse, Listen to John’s new radio show, “Natural Bodybuilding Radio,” at  IM

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